“Halfway Out of the Dark,” Thoughts on Doctor Who and Advent

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I was struck by the darkness and the sense of yearning as the Mr. Man and I sat on our green leather couch in our living room, attempting to get a little caught up on the advent readings. As the good little quasi (soon to be?) Lutherans that we are, we decided to give this whole advent thing a go (even though we were already several weeks behind schedule; it seemed like doing it a little would be better than not at all). So we sat there snuggled up together, him reading out loud. And all of the verses were about darkness and longing. Longing for reconciliation, wholeness, and for things to stop being so damn messed up.

When I think of advent I usually think of Christmas. Tiny Jesus in a cow-feeder. A midnight Christmas Eve service: the warm glow of the candles, the feeling of joy that comes with the carols, and the marry-Christmas greetings and hugs that follow before everyone walks out of church in the direction of their cars. But advent starts in the dark. It starts with longing. It starts with brokenness.

And Christmas Day isn’t the end of the story. Things weren’t all nice and peachy after that; Easter hadn’t arrive yet (there’s a not-so-happy thing called a crucifixion still coming). But there was a new sense of hope. Hope for reconciliation. Hope for healing. Hope for wholeness. They were halfway out of the dark.

It reminds me of a line from my favorite Doctor Who Christmas special, a sci-fi retelling of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol: “On every world, wherever people are, in the deepest part of the winter, at the exact mid-point, everybody stops and turns and hugs. As if to say, ‘Well done. Well done, everyone! We’re halfway out of the dark.’ Back on Earth we call this Christmas. Or the Winter Solstice.”

Christmases vary as much as the years they’re submerged in. I’ve had happy Hallmark-y Christmases, with family and rain (it’s Washington, what did you expect?) and wonderful presents under the tree. There have been others that were riddled with grief; every classic claymation special or cover of yet another classic yuletide song seemed like a new form of bereavement torture. I’ve had a Christmas where money was tight and Christians were offensive and not-exactly-charitable in the name of “helping the less fortunate” as they placed broken toys under our tree. This holiday season? This year I’m feeling halfway out of the dark.

It’s been a long, hard year. Yes, there have sure been some lovely moments doused in glitter and rainbows, but a lot of the year was dark and filled with longing — longing for healing, wholeness, and a little piece of mind.

Over the last year my clinical depression reached the point of becoming truly crippling. When I’d go to the doctor and was asked to fill out the emotional-and-mental-well-being form, I’d select five out-of-five and “extremely difficult” all the way down the list of questions. Sometimes I literally wouldn’t get out of bed the entire day; my husband would come home to find me still dressed in my PJs, unshowered, and unfed. The depression, like black, sticky tar that you simply can’t shake, was surrounding me, engulfing me, and drowning me.

It finally reached the point where I couldn’t deny there was a problem anymore; I was drowning and I couldn’t pull myself out. So I took the hard, scary step of telling my doctor exactly how bad things had gotten. Medication. Counseling. These aren’t the sorts of things your brain likely conjures up when you hear about “Christmas miracles,” but even though I’m not done with this long process it already feels miraculous; I get out of bed everyday, shower and brush my hair and teeth, eat cereal for breakfast, cook lunch and dinner, and sort of keep up on things around the house. I’m feeling so much better, in fact, that I’ve decided to go back to school to finish the last two years of my BA in Cultural Studies.

It’s still hard though. The last few days I’ve felt like crap thanks to a change in my dosage. But I’m functioning. I’m gaining back my life. I’m halfway out of the dark hole of depression.

There was other darkness, other brokenness this year. My marriage nearly fell apart, and I spent the longest two and a half weeks of my life near the end of the summer sleeping on my mom’s couch. So as we hung our First Christmas Together ornament on the tree, I cried. A mix of thankfulness, hopefulness, joy, and heartache over the fact things ever got so bad. There’s still hurt but there’s hope, there’s light ahead. We’re halfway out of a very dark place.

There’s been spiritual brokenness, too. Hurt, so much hurt from past churches and religious leaders and even well-meaning friends. To paraphrase Leonard Cohen (completely and utterly out of context), it’s been a cold and a broken hallelujah. But I’m starting to feel a little less cold and a little less broken. Things aren’t all healed up and there are certainly still scars, but spiritually I’m feel halfway out of the dark, too.

When I think about it, in a way it seems fitting that the holidays would take place the same month as the winter solstice, the longest night of the year, because despite all the icicle lights framing your neighbor’s roof or your uncle’s giant inflatable Santa snow-globe that keeps getting fogged up, December can be a dark time of year for a lot of people. For some, it’s joyous and celebratory but for others it’s a cruel reminder of loved ones lost, dreams that have fractured beyond repair, and how there won’t be anything waiting, below where a tree should be standing, on Christmas morning.

I’m lucky this year because despite how rocky and beak a lot of 2014 has been, I’m feeling halfway out of the dark. I feel hope the way I feel a sense of excitement when the Mr. Man and I go to Zoo Lights to celebrate the winter solstice or joy when I sing carols at a midnight Christmas Eve service, candle in hand. I’m not out of the dark yet. There’ll be more doctor’s appointments. More hard conversations. More “hey, God, it hurts to read the bible, I can’t read it, because people have used it to hurt instead of to heal.” But I know the sun will eventually stay for longer visits; Easter will eventually come; the flowers will eventually bloom; winter won’t last forever.

There’s hope. There’s a little light a midst all that freezing, pitch black winter.

So as a Scrooge-y old chap in my favorite TV show said: Well done. Well done, everyone. We’re halfway out of the dark.

10 Things NaNoWriMo Taught Me About Writing

Flickr cc Jeffrey James Pacres

Flickr cc Jeffrey James Pacres

Well, I did it. I successfully wrote my first 50K. As many of you likely already know, November is National Novel Writing Month (NANoWriMo), so tons of would-be novelists spent the month banging away at their keyboards (many are still banging away because it officially doesn’t end until midnight on the 30th).

I crossed the 50,000 word mark yesterday. I’m now the proud creator of a gargantuan Word document that, at least as-is, will never be shown to another living soul. But NaNoWriMo isn’t about having a completed novel, it’s about learning to not hyper-edit yourself and just spit that sucker out because, really, you can go back and edit and rewrite it to your heart’s content in December.

However, I honestly think that the most valuable thing I gained from my month of writing dangerously isn’t an in-process novel but an education in the messy art that is creative writing. Things I learned this month:

1. Don’t look back. 

This was one of the hardest parts for me, especially at first. I hadn’t realized how much I edited each sentence, played with each word, before committing them to paper. I thought this meant my writing was coming out better, prettier — but my perfectionism was keeping me from writing. I wasn’t able to make progress and I was missing out on what can happen when your imagination can run with something.

If you want to get anything done and you wan to write creatively, you have to stop looking back.

Yes, it likely is horrible — maybe even your own mother wouldn’t want to hang it on her fridge — but just keep going. You can send in the medics later; it’s not like that comma splice or muddled metaphor or complete lack of organization are going anywhere. You’ll fix it, just not right this moment. Right now, you’re writing. So just keep writing.

2. You don’t have to love your first-draft — in fact, you might even hate it.

In her book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life Anne Lamott teaches her readers about first drafts (or what she calls the shitty first draft because it’s just that horrendous). She writes:

People tend to look at successful writers, writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially, and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars … that they take a in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter. But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated.

The reality is, even when you’ve put in plenty of hours thinking about your project beforehand, the first draft will still totally and utterly stink. You might feel embarrassed that you wrote something so trite or dumb or flat. And that’s okay, that’s how this whole long and messy writing business goes.

3. It’s about habit, not inspiration.

While inspiration is fantastic and can make you feel like words are shooting out of your fingertips like you’re some sort of linguistic Spiderman, it rarely shows up on time. And it’s loyal Habit that helps keep things chugging along when Inspiration stands you up for yet another dinner date. If you wait for inspiration to show up, you’ll never get that novel written or update your blog on an even somewhat regular basis.

Building a habit takes about four to six weeks, and what a great habit writing every day would be. And is actually why I decided to do NaNoWriMo.

4. Bribes can work.

This can take many forms (I recommend avoiding bribing yourself with food or money because over time that could lead to some other less-desirable results), but for me it was novels. I wanted to read Around the World in 80 Days and The Fault in Our Stars; however, like the good little quasi-novelist that I am, I forbid myself from my books until I’d made word count for the day. (Yes, there was a bit of whining on my part but it helped get the job done.)

5. Treat it like it’s your job.

If I were working I’d eliminate distractions as much as I could in order to focus on the job at hand. But when I’m writing, too often there are distractions everywhere. Facebook alerts me that someone commented, my cellphone informs me that I have a new text message, there’s the dishes in the sink, and my cat decides that right now would be the most ideal time to become sociable after ignoring me all day. If I want to write something, I need to focus on it. And that means cutting down on distractions by signing off of social media and turning off my phone. (I never was able to figure out what to do about my cat. If you have a cat and still manage to write something everyday, extra props.)

6. Small choices matter. 

I think that one of the reasons I was able to complete my 50,000 word beast is because I was conscientious about the fact that small choices could completely derail my month-long commitment to writing. For example, when I hadn’t written yet and was starting to feel tired and would really rather just go to bed and not worry about the stupid thing, I’d remind myself that if I missed that one day it’d put me over 1,600 words behind schedule … those would be words I’d not only have to still pick up later but if that happened enough it could cost me my final prize.

So I wrote when I was tired. I wrote when I was sick. My writing wasn’t as good then, and sometimes I didn’t write as much as I would have wanted to but I still did it. While I don’t usually have a word-count goal looming over my head, I do have a few personal writing projects that I’d like to get outside of my head and out onto paper. But that won’t happen if I don’t make it a priority. Every time I choose to watch Gilmore Girls instead of writing, every time I decide I’m too tired or not feeling creative, or just really not in the mood I’m risking my project; I’m risking whether it will ever reach its completion.

7. Support is helpful only if you have the right kind of support. 

Choose your support system wisely. Friends who say “Oh, that can’t be true. I’m sure it’s not that bad.” when you tell them you’ve just written the worst 50,000 words of your life are not the ones to enlist in this elite task-force. You need people who can tell you, “Yeah, writing is hard but do it anyway” and “You’re right, it probably isn’t that great yet but don’t worry about it because rough drafts always stink.” People who will remind you that it’s okay to write horrible-no-good-I’ll-never-show-it-to-a-living-soul-drafts and celebrate with you when you make word count, those are the best people to whine at.

I recommend picking up Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird; she’ll tell you all the things a supportive writing friend would, and probably in a much funnier way, too.

8. Writing is a process.

A long, painful, I-have-no-idea-why-I-do-it-sometimes process. And if you want to write anything good, you’re going to have to fight with that demon Perfectionism because he’s wrong, man. First drafts aren’t just in need of a comma or a little more detail in that third paragraph; they need to be mined for the redeeming sentences and ideas and then, ultimately, burned so that no one will ever know how horrible your rough drafts are.

If you’re like me and everything usually comes out pretty sucky at first, that’s okay. Getting it prettied up is a process — a process that involves a whole lot of revision.

9. The hardest part is getting your butt in the chair. 

I’m very good at thinking of other things I could or maybe even should be doing. Like, there’s those dishes in the sink I already mentioned and maybe I should start my Christmas shopping on Amazon and I haven’t scrubbed the bathroom counter for a while. Suddenly everything else sounds pretty interesting. I wasn’t able to figure out a easy trick for this (actually, I don’t really know any easy tricks for writing period), but just forcing myself into the chair at my desk was usually a good place to start.

10. Writers write … a lot, and this is extra true of creative writing

I worked for four years as a college English tutor, so I’m used to the “writing process” as it relates to academia: researching, narrowing down ideas, organizing, outlining, writing, revising — and, Presto!, you’re done. Creative writing has pre-writing too which also can include research, but unlike academic writing there’s a whole lot more, well, writing.

I’d written pages and pages of notes before undertaking my first novel; I’d named all the characters, come up with family trees, and drawn a map of their town (this isn’t as impressive as it sounds because the town is extremely small). I’d come up with festivals and traditions unique to their town. And I’d written a short story based on my ideas in order to get a feel for how it might look and sound.

But … I’m going to scrap almost everything I wrote. The best parts about my 50,000 words you see aren’t the words themselves (although, I did write a couple pretty killer sentences among the muck), but the ideas that I came up with as I wrote. As I wrote I discovered, to my surprise, plot holes. I also discovered some things (like the age of my main characters and the perspective) weren’t working and will have to be rewritten completely. And I had some new ideas, ideas that I love, that will make it even better.

And, honestly, it would’ve been impossible for me to realize things like this by just brainstorming or outlining; I needed to actually see how it was working out. I needed to play with what I had on a page. And without some free form writing, I wouldn’t have come up with, what are now, some of my best ideas for my story.

I wrote 50,000 words and I don’t have a finished novel … but I have a novel and characters that I know better and a better sense of where to go with the next draft. (There are going to be a lot of drafts.)

What are some of the most helpful things you’ve learned about creative writing or blogging? What helps you keep perfectionism at bay?

When Being a Newlywed is Hard: An Open Letter on Our Anniversary

Flickr cc Seyed Mostafa Zamani

Flickr cc Seyed Mostafa Zamani

I overheard a woman say that marriage is hard.

When she saw me, the lone newlywed, she apologized — apologized that she’d said marriage might not always be candle lit dinners and long walks on the beach, cold sand between your toes, as the sun tucks itself in for the night. Apologized as if she were denigrating the apparent God of All Newlyweds — a bliss-filled, care-free, easy-going marriage. Apologized as if she were speaking a language I couldn’t possibly understand.

But I did understand. I do understand. We understand.

Exactly a year ago today, after joyfully crying throughout our entire wedding ceremony, we were pronounced husband and wife, Mr. and Mrs.

And all I can think to say is: we made it and I love you.

Some of the biggest highs and lows my life has ever experienced are not-so-neatly stored in the last 365 days. Wonderful and horrible. Hopeful and devastating. Joyful and agonizing. We’ve crammed more types of life into the past twelve months than I think some people pack into twelve years.

We made it and I love you.

Some memories I turn over and over in my mind, not wanting to forget a single glittering moment. Sometimes my camera was left hanging in the closet, journal entries purposefully left blank because I wanted the harshness and pain to eventually fade, even a little.

We made it and I love you.

There’s been doctor’s appointments — so many doctor’s appointments. New medications and side-effects. Panic attacks. Flash backs. Depression. There’s been the awkwardness of adjusting to living together. Lots of adjusting. Lots of growing up. Unpacking. Organizing. Figuring out routines. There’s been crying. There’s been laughter. There’s been feelings of insecurity.There’s been mandatory overtime that’s left you exhausted.There’s been crisis — true crisis, that left us both wondering if we’d even make it this far. There’s been joy. There’s been grief. There’s been loss.

We made it and I love you.

There’s been problems and pain from the world outside. There’s been joy and safety in our little world of two. There’s been hurt — hurt that our relationship is still healing from. There’s been love. There is love.

We made it and I love you.

I’ve learned this year that I love you more than I even knew. I’ve learned how badly my heart can hurt. I’ve learned I’m stronger than I imagined. I’ve learned that one of my favorite things in the world is when you reach out to hold my hand while you’re asleep. I’ve learned marriage, just like life, is hard — sometimes very hard.

We made it and I love you.

I’ve learned that the happy, smiley perfect wedding pictures lie. I’ve learned that sometimes life knocks the marriage-glitter out of your eyes early on. I’ve learned how romantic it can be to have your husband do the dishes when you’re too sick to get out of bed. I’ve learned that saying marriage is hard doesn’t mean you’re less in love.

We made it and I love you.

This is me carving in a tree stump, drawing with my finger in wet cement; this is me showing you I still care, deeply, with all of my heart. And hoping for many more years together.

We made it and I love you.

This year has been hard. And god knows I might hit the next person who tells me that because I’m a newlywed I don’t know what “hard” means. Even the experts say it’s been an especially hard year for us — for so many different reasons. But somehow we made it through.

And here I am a year after saying “I do,” saying we made it and I love you.

Happy first anniversary, sweetheart. Here’s to many more.

I’m talking about grief & weddings over at Offbeat Bride

It’s been almost exactly a year since my wedding, so the trails and tribulations of bridehood are behind me. But, in honor of my own experience with the fun and messy and sometimes downright horrible business of being engaged, I wrote a piece for the popular, quirky wedding site Offbeat Bride about what it was like to be a fatherless bride. Because sometimes, it was pretty rough.

I was practically dancing, I was so excited when I told my sister that I was engaged. But just two days later, I was hit hard by the reality that I couldn’t tell my dad my happy news. I sobbed like I’d only just been informed of someone’s passing. And it hurt just as much.

I was thrilled about being able to inject “when” instead of “if” into sentences related to our future, excited to upgrade my relationship status on Facebook, but I was grieving, too. Life’s messy. Sometimes weddings are messy. [continue reading]

I’ll be NaNoWriMo-ing this month, care to join me?

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National Novel Writing month is upon us yet again, and this year — for the first year in quite a few years — it’s at least a possibility for me because I’m not taking any classes. I’ve been attempting to get some blog posts in draft form so that I can still keep my blog at least somewhat active this month (of course, that will still mean revising them prior to pushing the “publish” button but it’ll at least make posting more likely). But I might still be a little scarce as I madly bang away on my keyboard trying to slowly — one word at a time — reach the elusive 50,000 word goal. (Honestly, though, I’ll be happy either way … but it would be nice to “win.”)

Are you doing anything special for National Novel Writing Month? Have you ever NaNoWriMo-ed before? And if so, any tips? And, of course, if you’re doing it this year, feel free to say hi on the site.

Flash Fiction: Syd and Nancy

Flickr cc Chichacha

Flickr cc Chichacha

“Good morning, Australia!” Ben beamed as he looked up from his bowl of Shredded Wheat. “How’s my favorite Aussie this morning?”

“No talk. Coffee no kicked in. And I’m not an Aussie and I don’t like to be called Australia. You know I hate to be reminded of the whys behind my parents’ ridiculous choice when it came to christening their first child. It’s like they needed to read How to Name Your Child for Dummies before being allowed near my birth certificate.” She rolled her eyes while refilling her white ceramic mug for the second time in the last 10 minutes.

“Your parents named you after their favorite vacation destination. And since they’ve traveled more than most cruise directors, naming you after their favorite little corner of the globe doesn’t seem stupid. It’s kind of sweet. Maybe they thought having you was as wonderful as a trip to Australia.”

“Sweet? Sydney, Australia was their honeymoon destination. They practically named me Honeymoon Baby. I’m forever saddled with the reminder that my parents knew a thing or two about ‘the birds and the bees.’ They might as well have named me Hot Night in the Hotel in Sydney.

“Hot Night in a Hotel — hey, I like it!”

“You know you shouldn’t provoke me,” Sydney said with her usual morning glare. “I’m not responsible for anything I do or say before 8am.”

“You know, you would’ve still been saddled with a reminder that your parents had some after-dinner fun, even if they hadn’t chosen to name you after their honeymoon. Being alive in and of itself — well, besides I guess for the few folks who started off in petri dishes — is a reminder of their parents and the birds and the bees. Yeah, it’s kind of weird. But most people just don’t obsess over it.”

“I’m not obsessing. It’s my kinky parents who decided to proclaim to the world forevermore that I was the result of their honeymoon. It’s as if I have to put Honeymoon Baby on applications.”

“No, it’s really not like that at all.”

“Yes, it is! The kinky freaks.”

“Maybe they weren’t announcing it. Maybe they just really liked Australia. And maybe you’re reading too much into this because you’re just having coffee for breakfast. Here, have some of my scrambled eggs.” Ben scooped some of his eggs onto Sydney’s plate, which had previously been occupied by a solitary piece of nearly-burnt toast. “Maybe your parents didn’t want any of their grandparents worrying it had been a shotgun oh-my-god-she’s-pregnant wedding?”

“They’d been living together for years before finally getting hitched.”

“Oh that’s right. Scratch that theory then. Why are we even talking about your parents’ sex life? This doesn’t exactly make good breakfast-time conversation. I think I’m losing my appetite.”

“Imagine how I feel — every single day.”

“Guess it explains why you only have coffee for breakfast. I’m not sure why you’re so worked up about this today though. You’ve had 32 years to process the fact that your parents, at least once in their married lives, had sex.”

“Don’t give me that, Ben. You’re the one who brought it up!”

“Okay-okay. Just drink your coffee and don’t bite anyone. I promise I won’t call you Australia again. I was just trying to come up with a cutesy nickname. Isn’t that what couples do? And we’ve been living together for almost five years and I still don’t have a sickeningly sweet thing to call you. But Hot Night in a Hotel is currently a finalist.”

“You’re impossible.”

“I could call you Syd.”

“Now I sound like Sid Vicious! I’d rather be named after a honeymoon than a psychopath.”

“I’ll make a mental note of it. Well, on a less bizarre note, we need to do laundry sometime this week. I’m almost out of work shirts. I’ll run the wash if you fold them.”

“Deal. I’m at the dregs, too. I’m almost out of underwear — had to wear the sexy ones today.”

“Having to wear the sexy undies because you’re almost out: that pretty much sums up marriage,” Ben said with a teasing wink. “And you wonder why your parents wanted to remember their hot night in Sydney?”

“Whatever, Nancy.” Sydney rolled her eyes again and took a bite of her scrambled eggs.

When You Feel Responsible for Other People’s Damnation

Flickr cc Logan Ingalls

Flickr cc Logan Ingalls

When I was a scrawny, awkward seventh grader who had not yet gotten used to her abnormally long arms and legs, my Sunday school teachers decided we were going to learn about proselytizing (or what my teachers would’ve called “evangelism” or “outreach”).

One of my teachers plopped the VHS in and pushed play — we were going to begin our religious education on the subject at hand with a movie. It was a very dated ’80s film that was cheesy in all the ways that most religious movies are. And equally scary in the way most religious movies are, too.

*****

 The uplifting film was about a car load of teens who crashed and, instantly, die. Or at least I hope it was instant.

The teens — who all looked like they were auditioning for The Breakfast Club but on account of their acting chops wouldn’t have made the cut — all waited in line at what looked like the DMV, but I guess was the entrance to Heaven. Eventually, each one was called up to talk to the man at the desk with the clunky old computer. He looked their names up in the Heaven database and, then, directed them accordingly the way the person working at the front desk of the hotel lobby points you in the direction of your room. However, the first four teens had not previously booked rooms at the Pearly Gates Hotel, and space was limited; they were each denied as the computer failed to recognize their names. They were shocked, dumbfounded, terrified.

The fifth teen hesitantly made his way to the old man at the computer. However, unlike his companions, he wasn’t looking scared so much as ashamed as he gave his name and then — unlike any of his friends — was told his room was waiting for him. He was the only Christian in the group, and he’d never taken the time to talk with any of his crash-mates about Jesus. Not even once. Can you imagine?

“Why didn’t you tell us about Jesus? We would have listened!” his friends screamed as the security guards came to escort them off the premises, to literally pull them kicking and screaming off to Hell; the man at the computer looked completely unfazed by the display of fear and hysteria in the lobby. Just another day at work.

They hadn’t even known they were going to Hell; they didn’t know they needed to make a reservation ahead of time. And if their so-called “friend” would’ve just taken a few minutes to talk to them about Jesus, he could’ve changed the course of their eternal destiny. But, instead, they’d spend eternity roasting. And it was all his fault.

The film ended with the Christian teen sadly, guiltily walking through the gates of Heaven … the eternal destinies of his four friends weighing forever on his conscious. He would no doubt spend eternity strolling the golden streets alone as the guilt and remorse ravaged his never-dying soul.

It seemed that not one of the five teens would have any taste of Paradise in the afterlife.

*****

Despite the dreadful overacting and lousy special effects, it was horrible and terrifying to my seventh-grade self. That film gave me more nightmares than Ursula the Sea Witch and that T-Rex in Jurassic Park that eats the man right off the Honey Bucket combined.

The brief Sunday school lesson after the film was basically that this is what would happen if we didn’t tell everyone we knew about Jesus and tried to invite them to church. The basic message: bring your friends to youth group or else suffer the eternal consequences. Yikes!

In my church experience (and I can’t say how many other people have had similar experiences), I feel like a lot of times the guilt card was pulled out when they wanted the youth to do something specific like bring their friends to kids’ church or youth group or they wanted us to participate in a church activity involving some form of evangelism. Guilt, shame, and fear were used as motivation. I wonder if they ever thought about what the consequences of their scare tactics might be.

****

Being personally responsible for other people’s damnation was something I worried about all the time as a kid thanks to these lessons at church. I routinely had nightmares about friends or family members saying “Kelsey, why didn’t you ever tell me? I would’ve listened!” and knowing it was all my fault as I watched them being dragged off to Hell. It was terrifying.

As a result, when I was much younger — early elementary school — I used to try to barter with God over my cousins’ eternal destiny (since they were family, it seemed like I ought to take personal responsibility for their souls in case no one else did). I didn’t think I could get more than two souls for the price of mine. And there were two of them, so it was worth a shot.

Just like the Christian teen in the video who’d sadly walked in to Heaven, I didn’t think it’d be possible to really enjoy Heaven if someone else’s eternal fate was weighing on me forever. And it didn’t seem weird to try and barter with God over someone’s salvation when that’s what my whole faith was based around: God (Jesus) successfully bartering with himself over the fate of humanity. Or at least that’s how I understood it as a little kiddo.

A friend of mine said something very insightful recently: she said you should listen to the theology of children because, even though that might not be exactly what the adults believe, they pick up on the undercurrents within a church or denomination, perhaps even better than the adults. (My poor parents — they had no idea the level of crap I was being exposed to in youth group. They thought I was more about to be taught that I was valued and loved rather than made to feel guilty or scared.) And while adults would look at my theology as a child and think it’s sad or maybe funny, it was the direct result of what I was learning from my adult Sunday school teachers. Yes, they weren’t specifically teaching me to try and barter my salvation-slip away, but they were teaching me that Heaven wasn’t going to be heavenly as a result of being personally responsible for other people’s eternal fates. If someone hasn’t grown up in a similar setting, I can’t imagine that they’d ever be able to fully comprehend just how terrifying that is.

Sometimes the Christians that feel an undying passion to “save your soul” can be annoying — sometimes really annoying, especially if it involves a bullhorn or too many impromptu religious speeches. Some of them just seem jerky and rude, and sometimes that’s because they are. But sometimes the pushy, awkward soul-savers are trying to get your butt in church this coming Sunday because they’re literally afraid they’re going to have to watch you kicking and screaming as you’re being dragged off to Hell, and that it’ll be on their conscience. Forever.

While I often find their “outreach” tactics as annoying as anyone else, my heart goes out to them. I know what it’s like to have that level of guilt and fear weighing on your chest like the protective lead blankets the nurse clips around your neck before your X-ray; it’s so heavy you can barely move. The fate of other people’s souls is a weighty thing to have clipped around your neck, especially when you’re just a kid.

I’m guest posting for a funeral director

And now for something completely different …

I wrote a guest post for Caleb Wilde’s blog Confessions of a Funeral Director. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Caleb or his blog, he’s a sixth-generation licensed funeral director and embalmer who lives in Pennsylvania, USA. And, not surprisingly, covers all kinds of death-related topics on his blog. It’s fascinating, really.

I wrote about the day I planned Wonder Woman’s funeral:

“Today we’re going to get into small groups,” my thanatology teacher announced, handing out a list of questions. The challenge: planning Wonder Woman’s funeral.

Wonder Woman, according to our assignment, had tragically passed away after many years of kicking butt as a sexy crime fighting crusader in the name of justice. Because she was loved the world over, Ms. Wonder Woman’s only direct request was that her body disposition (what’s done to the body), final disposition (the body’s final resting place), and funeral service equally include all of the many unique death-related practices without offending or marginalizing any of the inhabitants of the earth.

The request was sweet … but not exactly simple.

(Continue reading)

Flash Fiction: Pretty Shoes

Daaaaaddy!” whined four-year-old Alisa. Her small hands on her small hips, a mess of brown curls piled on top of her head and topped off with an off-center, droopy bow. She’d taken charge of her own hair this morning. “I wanna go to kindergarten! I’m ready!”

Flickr cc allthecolor

Flickr cc allthecolorI’m ready!”

“We’ll leave in just a few minutes, Sweetie,” said Mr. King, sitting on their blue over-stuffed couch, remote in hand. “Daddy just needs to figure out what today’s forecast is first so I know whether we need to grab your boots.”

“But I wanted to wear my pretty shoes.” Alisa sighed, looking down at her solitary pink and sparkly Mary Jane that she’d carefully paired with her shiny black tap shoe. She’d picked out her shoes as well.

“Maybe you can. We just need to see what the forecast says first, Sweetie. I promise if you can’t wear them today, you’ll get to wear whatever shoes you like the first nice day we have.”

“Promise?”

“Yes, I promise. And you’ll still get to wear everything else you picked out for today, even if you have to wear boots instead. And your rainbow-striped tights look beautiful with your green tutu.” Alisa looked down at her outfit and smiled proudly, and then hopped on the couch next to her dad. “Oh, here’s the forecast, Alisa. We’ll know in just a second …”

“After how nice it was to spend an entire week enjoying the warm sand between your toes at the beach or strolling barefoot in the park, the next few days will likely be a disappointment,” Silvia Proudmoore, the local newscaster, began in a matter-of-fact tone. She was known for wearing peach polyester suits and not beating around the bush when it came to disappointing weather predictions. “The rest of this week will definitely be boots weather for everyone. Grownups, too. So don’t leave home without your pair this morning. But there’s something to look forward to in the not too-distant forecast because starting next Monday some more nice days are headed our way. You’ll even be able to –“

Click. Mr. King pushed the power button on the remote. Alisa pouted, pushing her pink lower lip out as far as it would possibly go. “This isn’t something to pout about, Sweetheart. Even daddy has to wear his boots, and you know how funny they look with my suit. The people at the office might even make fun,” he made a dramatic pouty face as he gestured at his imaginary tease-worthy outfit in an attempt to cheer Alisa up. It didn’t work. “Everyone has to wear them, you know that. You heard the lady on the TV; it’s boots weather.”

“Okay,” said Alisa with a sulk. “But I can wear my pretty shoes next week?”

“Yes, you can wear whichever pretty shoes you like next week. But for the next few days you’re going to have to wear boots, just like everyone else.”

Alisa looked down at her outfit. Without the shoes it would no longer be the artistic masterpiece she’d envisioned. “Can I wear my yellow rain jacket today?” It wasn’t as good as the pretty shoes, but it’d help make up for their absence a little.

“Of course, you can, Sweetie. But it’s not raining outside, you might get warm in it.” And with that he strapped the heavy gray boots onto Alisa’s tiny rainbow-clad feet, pushing the red glowing button on the side of each boot to activate them. “Okay, you’re ready to go.” He picked Alisa up off the couch and put her on the ground.

“I hate boots,” she said, continuing to sulk. “They’re too heavy. And it’s hard to walk.” She demonstrated this by slowly shuffling around the living room, barely able lift her feet even an inch off the carpet.

“It’s better than floating off into space now, isn’t it?” her dad said with a playful wink. But it wasn’t really a joke. “No one likes to wear boots, Sweetie, but until the forecast clears up it’s what everyone has to do. It’s not safe to go outside without them until the gravity comes back.”

“Pretty shoes next week,” Alisa said with a sigh, grabbing her yellow rain slicker, even though the sun was shining, and her bright pink lunch box.

“Pretty shoes next week,” Mr. King said reassuringly.

And with a heavy, metallic clop clop clop they walked hand-in-hand out the front door.

Sunday Morning Polaroid: Or that Time I Heard a Woman Preach

Flickr cc frank

Flickr cc frank

I don’t find myself sitting in a pew at 9am on a Sunday morning very often. Usually, I’d still be sitting in bed, eating a bowl of cold cereal and sipping chamomile tea out of my Yellow Submarine mug. I’ve privately self-identified as a “churchless Christian” for a number of years, which doesn’t mean I take my faith less seriously but it does mean that church programs are, at least for this season in my life, nowhere to be found on my planner (but that’s fodder for another post).

But there I was — sitting in a pew near the back of a small Lutheran church, bright and early on a Sunday morning.

I’d gone there to see Greg — he’s the pastor who married the Mr. Man and me nearly a year ago — because he’d just transferred to being the senior pastor of another church within the denomination. A little church that I hadn’t visited yet. Personally, I tend to be a little weary of pastors; I’ve had some pretty rotten luck with more than my share in the past. But I trust Greg, and for me that’s huge. I ask him for book recommendations and, when my life recently smashed headlong into a brick-wall-of-a-crisis, he’s the first person I called.

But, to my disappointment, Greg wasn’t teaching that day. They were having a missionary speak, some Lutheran pastor working in Eastern Europe.

She’d spent a bit of time in Hungary, which perked my interest; I lived in Hungary for three and a half months back in 2005. And most people I know are more apt to hit up England, France, and Italy while globetrottering in Europe than dear old Hungary (although, you really should pay it a visit — I tell ya, you’re missing out).

I don’t remember exactly what the pastor talked about that morning. Something about making use of the chances we have to show love and compassion to the people around us, whatever those opportunities might look like. I remember it helped me to see my blog as a chance to show love by sharing my story of spiritual abuse and, hopefully, helping others to feel a little less alone rather than just a bunch of stories I should probably be telling to a therapist.

But what I remember the most about that Sunday morning is sitting two rows behind the pastor’s husband and two small children. I got more out of that little live Polaroid than I’ve gotten out of most sermons I’ve sat through or books on theology I’ve read.

*****

The oldest child, only a couple of years old, wasn’t really listening to Mommy preach. But I don’t really blame her because sitting through a sermon when you’re that young, even or perhaps especially when it’s your parent preaching, is hard. She fingered the covers of the hymnals in front of her, twisted around in her seat to survey the small sanctuary as best she could from such a low height, and then snuggled right up next to her daddy like she was getting ready for a nice, comfy nap.

The baby was snuggled up, too. She was on their dad’s shoulder, big eyes staring at the people in the rows behind. And sometimes acting shy when the two older white-haired women sitting behind them waved and smiled in the way people always flirt with adorable babies. Sometimes Baby stared at me; babies often stare at me. (My theory is that the smallest humans think I have exquisite taste when it comes to glasses, but maybe they just think I look funny.)

At one point during the sermon Baby started crying, so the dad took Baby out into the lobby to dance and bounce. The pastor, Baby’s mommy, shot Baby a look of concern — she’d known it was her baby crying before she’d even seen her. And the two white-haired women proceeded to dote, in true grandmother fashion, on the little girl while her Mini-Me was being cheered by Dad.

It doesn’t sound dramatic, revolutionary, or even noteworthy, really. But it was for me. And while I doubt any of the stars of my Polaroid even remember this specific snapshot, I remember it.

*****

At my ex-church women not only weren’t allowed to be pastors, but any church that had ordination standards that extended to women was considered a “bad church” and the members’ religious devotion and even salvation was called into question (Jesus’ blood spilt for all — well, providing your clergy all have what we consider to be the correct genitalia).

Members of my ex-church would’ve labeled the visiting pastor an “unsubmissive” woman, which in their minds would’ve completely diminished her strong faith, character, and years of academic study while in seminary. They likely would’ve said she was going against “what the bible clearly says” or was being “unbiblical.” Both common catch phrases which were used as if they were theological trump cards — but really meant that any further conversation or agreeing to disagree were out of the question.

I feel like at least as far as my ex-church goes, I can’t speak for other churches, a lot of this came from them failing to acknowledge that, as blogger Boze Herrington recently wrote on Facebook, “Christianity is a diverse faith with a wide spectrum of beliefs.” If the bible were truly so crystal clear, there wouldn’t be so many different interpretations. And, boy, are there ever a lot of different interpretations. Therefore, in my mind, when I hear someone say “the bible clearly says” what I hear is “this is what I happen to think the bible means” because that’s, honestly, the best any of us can do when it comes to this whole messy, complex business called theology.

I guess the only thing I really feel clear on is that: Jesus loves me and he equally loves people that I can’t even begin to stand and would really rather not include in the Jesus-loves-us circle. Everything else, well, I could be totally and utterly wrong on — or maybe I’m right. And maybe it doesn’t matter that much; maybe it’s more about showing love than trying to figure out every little detail of my creed. Maybe I’d get a lot of it wrong in the end, anyway. I saw a comic once where an old balding, white-haired God sat reading a book entitled “Theology” and laughing so hard tears streamed down his face; that’s what I try to remind myself of when I start thinking I’m hot stuff or have any of this figured out.

As a result of my ex-church’s failing to acknowledge how vast, complex, and messy the world of modern Christendom truly is, I think it left a lot of people feeling out in the cold just because they weren’t that specific brand of Christian — they checked a different name on their ballot or their pastor was a different gender or their church tradition looked different or whatever. They were different, so they weren’t truly Christians.

*****

So what I loved the most about sitting there that Sunday morning was how I felt accepted. I wasn’t a “bad Christian” or a “backslidden Christian” because I loved the fact that the visiting pastor was a woman. I was just someone else sitting in a pew listening to the sermon, trying to learn how to be a little less selfish and ornery and a little more charitable, and making silly faces at the adorable baby in front of me. I was just me, and that was okay.

I didn’t hear anyone gossip that the pastor was a bad mother or a bad wife or a bad woman or maybe just a downright horrible, no-good Christian who even longsuffering Jesus couldn’t stand. People just listened, a few took notes. I didn’t hear anyone gossip about the pastor’s husband — no one said he was a wimpy, feminized Christian man who didn’t take his faith or his family seriously. No one said he was whipped by his obviously overbearing wife. He clearly cared about his children very much; he was supportive of his wife. And those are both incredibly good things. His wife was well-educated and took her faith seriously and worried when her baby cried like any good parent would. And those are all incredibly good things.

My little Polaroid of their family was so novel to me because it didn’t seem novel to anyone else. And there was something about sitting there in the not-novelness of it all that was somehow a little healing. Maybe I’m a little more Lutheran than I’d thought.

More Posts of a Similar Vein: 

Further Reading: If, like me, you can count on one hand all of the women pastors you’ve heard of but the men pastors can’t even begin to be numbered, you might appreciate the book Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint by Nadia Bolz-Weber, another pastor who happens to be Lutheran. It’s also just a brilliant, raw, beautiful, laugh-out-loud funny essay book, regardless of your spiritual persuasion. Give it a try.